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SUZHOU – Strange but not altogether surprising news from China, where it has emerged that chemical giant Hengli is planning to convert coal into polyester. The privately-owned company is entering mining via a US$20bn project to convert coal into polyester yarn, for use in clothes, packaging and plastic bottles.

The more conventional feedstock for polyester is oil, which is used to produce the intermediate ethylene glycol; this in turn is used to produce polyester. Most of the world’s ethylene glycol is currently produced from ethylene, a chemical that is generally made by cracking oil or natural gas in a petrochemical plant.

However, new ways of producing the ethylene glycol feedstock are taking off in coal-rich China. These are attracting huge interest given China’s chemical industry is at a cost disadvantage compared with other countries’ because of a lack of domestic crude oil and natural gas. 

Reports from news agency Reuters suggest Hengli’s plans involve converting 20 million tonnes of coal into 9 million tonnes of fine chemicals and polyester each year. The company told Reuters it is working with China Tianchen Engineering Corp and Sinopec’s Luoyang Engineering to conduct pre-feasibility studies.

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